466 days since its announcement, the WE.League is set to get underway tomorrow in what is a momentous and historic achievement in womens football in Japan.
Women's football has been available in the country since the inception of the L.League in 1989, later being named the Nadeshiko league. However, despite attempted iterations and ambitions to improve the game, the league has remained semi-professional, with players usually being employed by the corporations which own the club.
Ex-Japanese footballer and Chairwomen of WE.League, Kikuko Okajima, has dreamed of this day since she started the process of developing her vision and bringing it into fruition. Okajima knows of struggle, experiencing difficulty in finding opponents to play against, pitches to play on and coaches to help the team. But she also dealt with a more serious issue. Sexism. Okajima stated that her and teammates were not treated as female athletes. The Japanese Press would focus on their looks, their hips and breasts. They were just girls trying to play a 'mens game'. With those experiences in mind, Okajima was more determined than ever to make a change and made the decision to help form the Japan Women’s Football Federation, before shifting her next focus to the development of Japan's first fully professional women's football league.
In a powerful video released by WE.League a few days ago, Kikuko Okajima and a trio of players from various teams conveyed an important message. Lined up with a ball in front of large pane of glass, they each had the opportunity to strike the ball through the glass. A visual representation of women breaking down the barriers placed in front of them. The shards of shattered glass from the scene are set to be repurposed and become the league trophy, which will be bestowed to the winners of the first ever WE.League season in May 2022.
Okajima hopes that the vision for the league encourages more women and young girls to attend games after seeing a successful rise in those watching J.League (Men's football League). As well as Japan's incredible achievement of winning the Womens World Cup in 2011.
Okajima wants to create an environment and space that is welcoming to all and use the league to promote social issues. She recognises that Japan in not as accepting of diversity compared to other countries which she has played and lived in and wants to adopt a similar model to the US Women's football league (NWSL) in supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and LGTBQ community.
The season is set to be played from 12th September - 21/22nd May 2022, after wanting to coincide with European football leagues. It is hoped that during the J.Leagues off-season, that WE League may be able to bring in more interest due to being the only football league which is being played at the time. The season itself will be divided slightly, with games running from September until early December, before a winter break period until late February. This extended break took into consideration how some clubs will be effected by severe weather in certain regions.
In terms of format, teams will face each other twice, once home and once away in a 22 round season. As things stand, there is no promotion or relegation to and from the league. This is to allow signficant time to discuss and evaluate how the league is fairing and make changes if necessary. Should the league become the success it appears set to be, they will then open up the pyramid so that promotion and relegation become avaliable and may look to increase the numbers of teams in the league.
MyNavi Sendai — Founded in 2012, the club are based in Sendai, which is the capital city of Miyagi Prefecture. The side finished 7th out of 10 in the 2020 Nadeshiko Division 1. The team will play their games at Yurtec Stadium Sendai.
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Urawa Reds — Founded in 1998, the club are based in Saitama City, part of Saitama Prefecture. The side finished 1st out of 10 in the 2020 Nadeshiko Division 1. The team will play their games at Urawa Komaba Stadium.
Omiya Ardija Ventus — Founded in 1996, the club are based in Omiya, part of Saitama Prefecture. The side finished 8th out of 10 in the 2020 Nadeshiko Division 2. The team will play their games at Nack 5 Stadium Omiya.
Chifure AS Elfen Saitama — Founded in 1991, the club are based in Kumagaya City, part of Saitama Prefecture. The side finished 2nd out of 10 in the 2020 Nadeshiko Division 2. The team will play their games at Kumagaya Sports and Culture Park.
JEF United Ichihara Chiba — Founded in 1992, the club are based in Chiba City, capital city of Chiba Prefecture. The side finished 6th out of 10 in the 2020 Nadeshiko Division 1. The team will play their games at Fukuda Denshi Arena.
NTV Tokyo Verdy Beleza — Founded in 1981, the club are based in Kita, a special ward located in Japan's capital, Tokyo. The side finished 3rd out of 10 in the 2020 Nadeshiko Division 1. The team will play their games at Ajinomoto Field Nishigaoka.
Nojima Stella Kanagawa Sagamihara — Founded in 2012, the club are based in Sagamihara, part of Kanagawa prefecture. The side finished 8th out of 10 in the 2020 Nadeshiko Division 1. The team will play their games at Sagamihara Gion Stadium.
AC Nagano Parceiro — Founded in 2000, the club are based in Nagano City, capital city of Nagano Prefecture. The side finished 5th out of 10 in the 2020 Nadeshiko Division 2. The team will play their games at Nagano U Stadium
Albirex Niigata — Founded in 2002, the club are based in Niigata City, capital city of Niigata Prefecture. The side finished 5th out of 10 in the 2020 Nadeshiko Division 1. The team will play their games at Denka Big Swan Stadium.
INAC Kobe Leonessa — Founded in 2001, the club are based in Kobe, part of Hyogo Prefecture. The side finished 2nd out of 10 in the 2020 Nadeshiko Division 1. The team will play their games at Noevir Stadium Kobe
Sanfrecce Hiroshima Regina — Founded in 2020, the club are based in Hiroshima, capital city of Hiroshima Prefecture. Despite the opportunity to take over Angeviolet Hiroshima, J League club Sanfrecce Hiroshima, opted to create its own womens team from scratch. The team will play their games at Hiroshima Wide Area Park
Whilst emphasis has been placed on signing players to professional contracts, which are not subject to a salary cap. There has also been emphasis on signing foreign players into the league, in hopes of drawing in more interest from fans and experience from foreign players to improve the league. The Japan Football Association and WE League have offered all clubs financial aid for signing foreign players. With the JFA supporting finances regarding ASEAN players (Similarly to J League) and the WE League covering signings from countries which are high up in the FIFA World Rankings.
Thus far, the league has players from the following countries:
Where to watch and how to keep up
Unfortunately, unless you live in Japan, catching WE League games will be quite difficult. For those in Japan, games will be shown on streaming service DAZN. Whilst some fixtures will be available to watch internationally on DAZN’s YouTube channel. Highlights of all games will however be avaliable, should you not be able to catch a game.
This weekends opening day fixtures are set to be able to view for both domestic and international audiences on the DAZN Japan YouTube Channel.
The WE League also created english-language social media accounts on twitter and instagram, which is set to provide regular updates on the league, including match results, starting lineups, transfers and other information.